As the mom of a now 53 year old autistic son, I have learned some interesting and surprising lessons about autism that truly were helpful to me as a mother, a teacher and a school psychologist.
Over the years, I learned 6 important lessons from my autistic son Joe, and discovered that these are the 6 best ways to help your child with autism thrive so I want to share them with you.
One of those lessons stands out above all the others.
This crucial lesson I learned helped me to be a better mother to my son.
All of these mother’s lessons about autism were an essential guide to make my son’s life happy and fulfilling. This is what every parent wants for their child, isn’t it?
The Dark Ages of Autism
Joe, was diagnosed with autism in 1972 at age 6 when basically no one had heard of autism. I call those early years The Dark Ages of autism as there was no support or assistance for either my son or myself.
A year later, Joe’s neurologist advised me to put Joe in an institution and go on with my life. Needless to say, I was horrified. How do you even begin to think of putting your only child in an institution and then, “go on with your life?”
In a shaking voice, I told the neurologist that, “I will go on with my life but with my son in it.” Little did I know what I was getting into. I found myself in a different world—a world where I knew nothing of autism and neither did anyone else.
The Two Views of Joe
What I realized in the very beginning of our journey was that I had a vastly different understanding of my son than the doctors or teachers had. While they believed Joe incapable of accomplishing much in life, I believed Joe was brilliant.
I was convinced he could do anything he set his mind to do.
Realistic Basis of Joe’s Abilities
I was not dreaming nor was I in denial when I believed Joe was incredibly intelligent.
I based this viewpoint on what I had seen Joe do so far in the 7 years of his life. He had a natural curiosity. He loved to read his books.
He never gave up when learning something difficult. He loved to learn!
The Most Important Lesson I learned From My Autistic Son: Unwavering Belief in My Child
The bottom line is that I truly believed in my son, in his abilities, in his strengths and in his desire to learn.
I focused on what he could do and I realized that when I focused on what Joe could do instead of what he could not do, he was happier and then, continued on his merry way of learning. It worked.
Today, Joe has a Master’s degree.
This is how he saw the world differently and I had to enter his world to find out how to best reach him and help him thrive.
Yes, Joe was a square peg in a round world.
His teachers valiantly tried to make Joe into a round peg to better fit into the round world.
But, that proved to be extremely difficult if not impossible. Joe was more comfortable being a square peg than transforming into a round one.
Over the years, I realized that Joe behaved differently because he saw the world differently.
He reacted to events and situations in his unique way, if he reacted at all. I was intrigued. I wanted to know more about Joe’s world.
I wanted to know why it was so difficult for him to see the world as I saw it, as his teachers saw it.
Entering Joe’s World
When Joe was about 2 years old, I learned to enter his world.
Actually, quite by accident. Joe loved to be a fan. He moved his hands in a circular motion for hours.
One day, I sat on the floor next to him and also moved my hands in a circular motion.
I told him I was a fan, too. He looked at me and smiled.
He continued being a fan but while he and I sat there being fans, he was able to comfortably give me eye contact and smile at me—something he had difficulty doing.
I had entered his world. I made a connection with my son!
I learned later that this repetitive circular motion is a hallmark of autism.
The behavior calms the autistic child because it releases feel good hormones like serotonin.
Oh! So, this was why he always looked so happy when he was a fan!
In the coming years, I entered Joe’s world often which enabled me to get to know Joe better and develop a meaningful relationship with him. I found Joe’s square peg world interesting and enlightening.
Famous Square Pegs
I can imagine the mothers of Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs also finding their sons’ thinking and behavior fascinating.
Unfortunately, the school systems of each of these 3 men did not realize their brilliance and potential.
Each of these three had difficulty in school systems that did not understand them and their differences.
Edison was considered too stupid to learn; Einstein was expelled from schools, Jobs needed reminders just to shower.
However, their mothers did understand them and encouraged them. Their mothers believed in them and their abilities.
These three men, each in their own way, changed the world.
Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid. Albert Einstein
I have always found Joe’s thinking and behavior fascinating.
Unfortunately, the school system did not understand his behaviors, his intelligence, nor his abilities.
I, however, did because I saw something in him that they usually failed to see.
The Perspective of Educators
Teachers, including special education teachers, counselors, and school psychologists see our children in relation to other children their age.
They are trained to enable our children to function in a classroom with other children.
They want our children to behave and achieve academically basically in the same ways as their peers.
These professionals work toward having our children achieve behavioral and academic norms like other children in the classroom.
This is their job. This is the Domain of Educators.
The Perspective of Doctors
Medical professionals view autistic children through the lens of brain development and brain function.
They focus on the aspects of the child that need medical or health care attention. This is the Domain of Doctors.
The Perspective of Parents
Autistic children and adults so often are most comfortable in smaller, quieter environments like our homes.
Autistic children and adults display their abilities better in a setting such as their homes because they are more comfortable and can function better.
Therefore, parents see a different set of abilities. This is the Domain of Parents.
Sharing, Respect and Valuing: The Ideal Perspective to Have About Anyone With Autism
One of the 6 most important lessons I learned from my autistic son is what specifically is the ‘the ideal’ for parents, teachers and doctors.
The ideal is when parents, teachers and doctors share information about autistic children.
It is ideal when all involved respect the opinions and information of each other.
It is ideal to value and consider all those involved when creating education plans for the autistic child. This is the Domain of all Involved in the Child’s Support System.
The Ideal Remedy
The mistake the professionals made then was in not believing, respecting or even considering my knowledge of Joe as a mother.
As a result, they could not understand Joe as a more complete child.
They focused on what he could not do, not what he could do and do well.
That is, until 3rd grade when Joe’s teacher realized his incredible knowledge of geography.
She gave him the opportunity to show this knowledge to the class by becoming Joe the Teacher which enabled him to gain the respect of his classmates.
This is not only what Joe wanted but what he needed.
This respect of others is what all our children want and need.
From that point on, Joe was no longer bullied in school.
When parents and teachers work together through mutual understanding and respect, we help our children gain self-esteem, self-confidence, self-respect and the highly valued and needed respect of others.
Five Other Important Mother’s Lessons About Autism
- Focus on Your Child’s Abilities and Build on Them to Enhance Learning
Knowing your child’s realistic abilities enable you to help your child in coping and improving their areas of struggle.
By capitalizing on your child’s abilities, you help build confidence in them and that, in turn, motivates them to tackle the areas in which they have difficulty.
I learned to focus on Joe’s abilities such as his incredible memory and ability to organize anything and everything.
Joe struggled in the classroom as he was unable to focus on the teacher. Therefore, he was unable to learn or respond appropriately in the classroom.
Using his love of organizing, he learned to organize classroom learning material in smaller chunks that were more manageable for him.
The smaller chunks of information were easier to memorize and then he was able to draw upon the memorized chunks of information in classroom activities.
2. Focus on Your Child’s Interest Areas
Interest areas are the gateway to an autistic child’s mind.
Knowing and using your child’s interest area enables them to focus on what is being presented to them.
Observing your child beginning at a early age will help parents determine their children’s likes and dislikes and very importantly, their interests.
For example, my son Joe loved maps.
He spent hours poring over atlases. He concentrated not only on the maps themselves but also on the written information about each country on the map.
Joe’s teachers would send his school work home so he could complete it.
I used Joe’s interest in maps to teach him.
I taught all his classroom material to him in relation to maps so he would pay attention and repeat the information back to me.
He became interested in the concepts because he related the concepts learned at home to his beloved maps.
Online courses in areas of interest can be a real help and this is one of the 6 best ways to help your child with autism thrive.
3. Focus on Lessening Your Child’s Struggles
Unfortunately, for autistic children, struggles in school and in society are basically inevitable.
The characteristics of autism, for example, the often times inability to interact with others, frequently cause difficulty in communicating and socializing.
When my son Joe was 4 ½ he contracted encephalitis.
As a result, he lost his coordination and had difficulty with handwriting.
He printed his words beautifully but his 4th and 5th grade teachers would not accept homework which was printed.
They demanded all homework to be in cursive. Because of his lack of coordination, it was impossible for Joe to write in cursive.
This was an overwhelming struggle for Joe.
He worked so hard to complete these assignments.
Nothing I said to the teachers made a difference in their acceptance of Joe’s printed homework.
Request Assistance from Certified Professionals to Communicate with Your Child’s Teachers and School
One afternoon, his pediatrician visited the school’s principal.
He explained that due to a bout of encephalitis, Joe’s coordination did not enable him to write in cursive.
The pediatrician also explained this to Joe’s teachers. From that day forward, Joe’s teachers accepted his printed homework for credit.
I discovered that requesting assistance from professionals who knew Joe could be an immense help to Joe in reducing negative consequences from difficulties he could not overcome.
The pediatrician knew Joe neurologically so understood Joe’s inability to write in cursive.
4. Focus on Learning Tools
I learned early on in my teaching career that computers are great tools for helping special needs children in the classroom.
While the need for interaction with the teacher and other students will always be important, autistic children seem to find it easier to interact with the computer and computer learning programs.
Art and music can be important tools to help special needs children in learning.
Children love to draw and color. Children love to sing.
By incorporating these activities in learning, children are more apt to pay attention, enjoy the activity and then learn the concepts presented.
5. Become Your Child’s Advocate
Become knowledgeable regarding your child’s unique abilities, interests and differences.
Research on the internet can be your friend. Share this information with teachers, counselors, therapists and doctors.
I learned to become Joe’s advocate by not accepting the then often dire beliefs of teachers and doctors about Joe.
Their lack of understanding Joe was truly due to the little to non-existent information on autism at the time. Advocating for Joe enabled him to have opportunities that might have been otherwise denied or out of reach to him.
The Most Important Lesson I Learned From My Son About Autism is Actually Two Fold
The most important lesson I learned in 53 years as a mom of an autistic son is to believe in my child and to also believe in myself as a mother, to realistically know what my son can and cannot do, to focus on his abilities giving him self-confidence.
With this confidence, Joe, still a square peg, has been able to succeed in the round peg world.
Joe is an accomplished, independent adult. He has achieved more than anyone believed possible. Except me, that is!
Carol Basile, Ph.D. is the mother of an adult autistic son, school psychologist and the author of Against All Odds: Our Life Journey With Autism. She loves sharing this information on the 6 most important lessons I learned from my autistic son, along with the 6 best ways to help your child with autism thrive, because it can help improve the lives of so many families.
She is also an educator, and parenting group facilitator. Carol has been in the field of education for almost 40 years, as a K-12 teacher, high school counselor, and school psychologist; specializing in at-risk children and adolescents.
She currently teaches psychology at a Southern California college and is also the author of The Draco Twins Make a Discovery and The Draco Twins Turn Bullies into Buddies, a children’s book series about differences.